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Bulls strike gold against the Warriors
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 16
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Bulls fans, you can open your eyes again.
“Win or lose,” Joakim Noah was saying in a relaxed Bulls locker room late Friday night after a dominating 113-95 victory over the Golden State Warriors, “that was the best we’ve played in a long time.”
Probably, and shockingly given recent events and a 42-point loss in Sacramento Wednesday, that was one of the better wins of the season considering: The lately offensively challenged Bulls scored their third most points of the season, they held the league’s best three-point shooting team without a three until the fourth quarter when the Bulls were leading by 31, and they did this with Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Richard Hamilton still out along with Derrick Rose and against a team now 37-30 and fighting for a playoff spot.
I’ll admit after the debacle in Sacramento and no help on the way I had the explosive Warriors, who are averaging more than 100 per game, winning this one by 20.
“I think we played with the right mindset today,” said Noah, whose big time first quarter hustle with 10 of his 16 points ignited the Bulls sleepy offense. “Losing to Sacramento the way we lost to Sacramento the other day was very humbling and it’s a reality check. If you don’t come ready to play we can get our (butts) kicked. We’ve been going through a lot of adversity. It was a big win for us tonight and we just got to keep fighting.”
And you surely don’t want to jump too far with a strong Denver team in the United Center Monday. But again the possibilities are intriguing as the Bulls moved to 36-29 and tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference with Atlanta. But Indiana, which lost at home Friday to the Lakers without Kobe Bryant, is just four games ahead and playing in Chicago a week from Saturday. And the now debilitated Knicks are just three games ahead in third.
Of course, the Miami Heat has lapped the conference like the 90’s Bulls used to, and even more dominantly with a 21-game winning streak and 10 ½ game lead over second place Indiana. But someone has to play them in the conference finals, and it’s still hard to say even after these gruesome last several weeks for the Bulls that it can’t be them, especially the way they took out a good Warriors team.
“I still feel we have a lot of basketball to be played,” said Noah, who finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds as all five starters were in double figures. “It’s in us to turn it up to another level and get ready for the playoffs.”
The Bulls basically are in with a 10 ½ game lead over ninth place Toronto. So these last 17 games are about positioning. And, of course, the return or not of Rose. It remains unclear what Rose will do. But Hinrich said he hopes to play Monday after a setback kept him out of Friday’s game and Gibson could be ready next week along with Hamilton.
That would strengthen the bench as there were big time positive signs Friday like:
— Luol Deng shooting his way out of his recent slump with nine of 16 for 23 points;
— Carlos Boozer with as good an all around game as he’s had all season with 21 points, nine rebounds, five assists and there steals and a dive on the floor save late in the second quarter that Nate Robinson called “one of the best hustle plays of the season;”
— Robinson recovering from an awful effort against the Kings with 20 points and seven assists, but more importantly dropping a lot of his antics which were starting to trouble the team and coach Tom Thibodeau and deliver his best defensive effort of the season in denying Stephen Curry and holding the Warriors shooting star to two of 13 shooting and eight points.
— Marco Belinelli coming out of his scoreless zero for nine game against the Kings and five for 24 the last two games to add 13 points. He made three three pointers as the Bulls overall made eight of 16 threes and shot over 40 percent for the first time in five games and better than 50 percent for the third time in two months.
Consider that over the last five games before Friday with the Bulls winning just one and on a Belinelli three, the Bulls gave up a combined 49.1 percent shooting, averaged 86.8 points and looked like a team worn out by the season, the injuries and the constant noise regarding Rose.
But the Bulls boldly showed otherwise Friday the way they’d done it most of the season, suggesting even without Rose this is a team that can make some noise of its own.
“Everything,” Thibodeau said about the improvement on offense. “Energy, screening, sustaining spacing, moving the ball, making quick decisions, ball movement, player movement, inside out. And I thought the way we started the game was important (20-10 lead about six minutes in). I think the big thing is to understand where intensity comes from, how important it is to compete and the answer is pretty simple: You go out there and defend, you rebound, take care of the ball, play inside out, share it. (If you do) you’re going to have a chance. When you get away from that and start holding on to it, start quick shooting, one-on-one, don’t get back, it can snowball on you. But the big thing is to compete. We have to show that we’re willing to make that commitment.”
It’s no great secret in the way this Bulls team plays. But even they need an occasional reminder. You outwork your opponent, be more physical, take good shots, help on defense and be unselfish on offense. It’s in all the manual. Everyone tries, though this Bulls team under Thibodeau has been one of the best at sustaining it. But they seemed to get off the rails of late, the product perhaps of injuries, Rose’s absence, extended play, the long season, changing rotations and combinations. Though they abide by the no excuses thing, many of the issues are reasonable to accept and not that much you can do when perhaps you haven’t spoken to Vladimir Radmanovic all season and then when you talk on defense maybe he doesn’t recognize the voice.
“We’re a team, especially defensively,” reminded Noah. “Everybody has to be on the same page. You have to have an unbelievable amount of trust. If one guy isn’t in the right spot, it doesn’t work. Sometimes we get a little frustrated.”
That’s been apparent lately with the Spurs shooting 54.1 percent, the Kings 54.2 percent, the Pacers 52.7 percent, the Cavs 49.4 percent, the Heat 50.7 percent, the Nets 52 percent, the Nuggets 58.1 percent. That’s not Bulls basketball; not under Thibodeau.
And then came the train wreck in Sacramento where you knew what that light at the end of the tunnel was.
Thibodeau promised to get their attention. But it’s not like he was screaming or threatening; well, not a lot, anyway.
So what was that speech like, Tom Rockne?
“Try,” Thibodeau said after Friday’s game and then paused.
You could cut the silence with a bologna slicer.
Actually, as Thibodeau went on to say and we pretty much know, this is a group of players who take the game and their participation in it seriously. You don’t get many consecutive poor efforts from them, even though there was a legitimate question about how much they could provide given all the players out. Friday’s was an intriguing statement.
“The thing is, this team has a lot of pride,” Thibodeau said. “So we knew we stunk. Everybody. Players, coaches, we stunk. So we had to correct it. The big thing is putting the work in. The magic is in the work. You put the work in, usually the results are going to be good.”
So the Bulls had a vigorous practice Thursday upon arriving in San Francisco; they competed in their shootaround and there were some stares and messages sent. The Bulls don’t name names. They’re not about to have someone blacklisted, be it at Hop Sings or around the NBA. But this is not the circus. This is a team that leaves when the circus comes to town. Even if they aren’t scared of the clowns, they don’t really have use for them.
“When you lose by 40 to Sacramento that in itself, you can say whatever you want… is a wakeup call,” said Noah. “You can’t be clowning around. There’s got to be focus. That’s our priority.”
You won’t get anyone to elaborate. But it was obvious in the Kings game what was going on. On one occasion, Robinson made a three and went into his airplane act, swooping low with his arms while Isaiah Thomas just ran by him for a layup while Nate preened. So Nate then decided to talk some to his buddy Thomas and play some one-on-one. The ball stopped moving, guys were cutting and not even being seen. Thibodeau was being forced to dip deep into his bench for players who hadn’t been in the rotation for months. It wasn’t only that the frustration was mounting about the score. It was the lack of professionalism.
Guys talked. They came out to play. Especially Robinson, who provided a defensive effort the likes of which we’ve never seen from him. And against Curry, who scored 54 points on the Knicks this season in Madison Square Garden and is eighth in the league in scoring.
“The one thing that stood out, Nate was really into the ball,” said Thibodeau in something I’ve never heard from him all season. “I thought his ball pressure was very good. We’ve got to do that all the time.”
That’s where Hinrich is missed the most. Robinson can be a heck of a scorer and is one of the more athletic players on the team, exciting and enthusiastic. But ball pressure on the perimeter is one of the keys to the Bulls locking up the opponent. Without Hinrich the Bulls generally don’t have it. On Friday, Robinson showed if he wants to he can, and he probably heard plenty about his game in Sacramento.
“We had a long talk about things that needed to be addressed as a team,” Robinson said without elaborating. “Then move forward. Coach said we need to play like that every night. Go on the attack for as long as we can.”
Notice, there was none of that Peter Pan nonsense and happy place stuff from Robinson. He was serious; the Bulls were serious.
“I watched what he (Curry) did to the Knicks,” Robinson said. “I was hoping he didn’t have one of those games. And he didn’t. Try to make everything hard, contest every shot. Some point guards hate that. Avery Bradley (of Boston) is one of the best. I had to do that. I tried to make it as hard as possible for Steph to bring up the ball. He’s 70 percent of their offense. I wanted to do everything I could to make it as hard as possible to bring the ball up and shoot. I wanted him to be tired. It worked.”
Ever hear Robinson talk like that? Me, neither.
Maybe it just takes some guys longer.
But it was a different Bulls team from the start almost everywhere, and you could see how much impact Noah was going to have. He’s an unusual leader in he’s far from the best scorer. He’s more the leader in the Bill Russell mode of defending, making plays for his teammates, leading with desire and his model of play and verbosity.
“Scoring, defense, rebounding, hustling,” Thibodeau said about Noah’s contribution. “I thought the starters played terrific to start the game, ball pressure, Jo with his hustle got everyone going. Then Carlos got going. Lu was solid throughout. Marco started slowly and got going, a good all around effort.”
The matchups also were better for the Bulls as the Warriors aren’t getting much yet from Andrew Bogut. So Boozer didn’t have to work much while Noah made it tough on David Lee, who finished with a modest 15 points and eight rebounds. Meanwhile, Boozer was proving too strong and active against Lee to start, hitting his jump shots and making power moves to the rim that later would lead to back to back dunks, one on a diving slash that even drew gasps from the home crowd.
“I thought we came out aggressive on both sides tonight,” said Boozer. “I think we executed really well and did a great job on the defensive end making their best players take tough shots. The best part of it was that we were able to keep it up for the entire game. It’s fun to watch us play like that.”
Noah had the Bulls first two baskets going to the rim hard and it continued from there as Noah made jumpers (seven of eight baskets overall in the game) as Bogut couldn’t get out. And though the Warriors drew within 28-27 after one quarter the feeling was palpable.
“Got outworked,” said Warriors coach Mark Jackson. “We know that basketball team and they beat us in Chicago by outworking us and by being the more physical team. Right off the opening tip: Loose balls, rebounds, screens, moving without the basketball. We were bad and getting away with it. There was a point during a timeout that we were down and we were thrilled to be there. We had no business being there. We just did not play well. We did not meet their intensity and that is the disappointing part of it because the fact of the matter is, we are not going to win ball games if we don’t do that.”
Jimmy Butler had a huge second quarter as the Warriors tried to go small with their three guard lineup, and Thibodeau jumped on the mismatch, sending Butler into the post against Jarrett Jack. Butler scored and then the Warriors tried to rotate, the Bulls moved the ball for easy shots, getting 28 assists to 16 for Golden State.
Then it was Boozer of all guys diving between Warriors players to come up with a loose ball that led to a Butler fast break score as the Bulls broke from a 44-44 tie late in the second quarter with a 20-2 run into the third.
From there with the Bulls taking a 72-49 lead four minutes into the second half it was about over as Boozer had 11 more in the third quarter including those two dunks late in the third after Robinson and Belinelli broke it open with threes. The Warriors through three could barely get an open look and were zero for 11 on threes as the Bulls led 94-63 going into the fourth quarter.
“First to the floor,” Thibodeau said proudly. “That’s the thing. Defend, get back, get your man, help when needed, be first to the floor, make multiple efforts, hustle. Doing stuff like that unites and inspires your team. Get a team doing that and you’re going to have a good chance.”
Maybe you can’t do it all the time. But the way the playoffs work, you only have to do it four in seven times. So who knows as it’s still in the Bulls.